I’ve always found it somewhat embarrassing to admit, be it by quantity or taste, when a plate of food has defeated me.
For as long as I’ve been fending for myself I’ve made a point of gulping down as many of the most challenging foods available, from an entire roasted pig’s head and sweetbreads (in this instance, the poor chap’s testicles) from an outdoor wood-oven restaurant in East London, to hákarl (fermented shark served on a toothpick) in Iceland. Often, I’ve enjoyed them, although the latter was a stretch.
However, when my colleague and I went in search of our first taste of Nigerian cuisine this week, I found myself presented with tastes and textures quite unlike any I’d come up against before.
“African cuisine” is of course incredibly varied, so breaking it down into separate countries from all over the vast continent yields very different results. Nigeria, part of West Africa, is big on spices and flavoursome oils to create stews and soups based on tomato and hot peppers. Most dishes feature dried fish, all kinds of cuts of meat, and various bitter leaves – some of which we are unfamiliar with – while the sides are made up of rice – served plain, jollof style or fried – and plenty of cassava, yams and plantains.
I was no less excited than usual at the prospect of trying a new style of food. Our experiment at EKO restaurant in Homerton started well, with two cans of Afrimalt (a sugary, malty carbonated drink popular in West Africa) and a large plate of beautiful fried yams. These were served with a dip of spicy tomatoes and peppers cooked for a long time with dried fish. The taste was excellent, but it was the texture of these yams that was something else; we both agreed they were not unlike potato wedges, but with a bite that frankly I’ve yet to find in any other carbohydrate.
After devouring a whole plate of yams it would have been prudent, perhaps, not to have ordered a main each and two sides, but we were unfamiliar with almost everything on the menu and so, on the restaurant’s advice, that’s exactly what we did. We were brought out two stews – one based on pumpkin leaves and dried fish, and the other on just about every bit of cow you can imagine (and some you probably can’t).
With this we were served a platter of jollof rice with a garnish of grilled plantains, and a plate of what our highly knowledgeable waitress told us was pounded yam – a rather amorphous-looking blob sitting forlornly on its own in the middle of the plate. This was to be torn with our hands and eaten, we were told, with the stews.
The flavours of the fish stew were beyond strong – the bitterness of the leaves and the texture of the dried, stewed fish combined to make an incredibly sharp dish. I could see why it was paired with the soft, almost flavourless pounded yam. The beef dish was somewhat sweeter but blisteringly hot, and featured mostly oxtail and tripe, the latter being an entirely new ingredient to me. With the flavour of the peppers and the texture of the meat, it paired well with the jollof rice and sweetness of the plantain and Afrimalt.
To the uninitiated and already nearly full, the overwhelming flavours and alien textures confused our minds and stomachs. We had and still have a million questions about the ingredients, and the development of these recipes with them, but coming from a food culture where next to nothing is as strong in flavour, these dishes defeated us both.
It should be said, however, that I found the pounded yam to be a downright marvellous experience – it tore and behaved like polenta that had become utterly malleable, and we both rather liked the idea of adapting it into a more European-style dish – perhaps with the addition of herbs or cheeses, or even just a little more seasoning.
I’m very reluctant to pass off an entire country’s food culture as “not my thing”, however, so if you’ve got more Nigerian recommendations for me, let me know in the comments below.